Age of revolution

Age of revolution

The modern world began to emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries, with colonial dominance abroad and social upheavals at home. Nell Darby sets the scene

Header Image: Beer Street by William Hogarth

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a gradual change in lifestyle for people in England and Wales. Towns were growing and developing as urban migration took place, and material culture and lifestyles were also shifting. The scientific revolution took place during this time, with discoveries being made by eminent British scientists such as Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

There had long been an exodus from rural communities to London, for example, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries when many servants went down to London to seek employment. Yet London, along with other cities, was home to many poor and homeless people, for whom urban life had failed in its promises of riches – or at least, steady employment. Those working as servants found themselves subject to short-term work and competition from the many others who had migrated into the city, as well as those native to it.

Most families who could afford it had servants, either living in as part of the household, or coming into work from their own homes every day. It wasn’t just the gentry who employed servants – even relatively humble households might use a local girl to help around the house or to nurse children.

Beer Street by William Hogarth
Beer Street by William Hogarth

Many people in rural areas continued to work on the land, but periods of agricultural depression during the 18th century saw work become precarious, and wages fall. Although agricultural work was the most common type of work in the countryside, people during the 17th and 18th centuries worked in a huge variety of trades. Parish records and trade directories show that many worked in small-scale domestic employment, as blacksmiths, weavers, carpenters, butchers, builders, carriage drivers, postmen, innkeepers, laundresses and so on. Every village in England and Wales would have had a selection of tradesmen providing goods and services, in addition to the journeymen workers and hawkers travelling door-to-door with goods to be bought.

Philosopher and political economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) described Britain in the 18th century as “a nation of shopkeepers”, and consumerism in England was on the rise during this century. Shops were established selling pretty much everything, from hats to books. Clothes would have been hand-made by seamstresses or by women for themselves and their families, and handed down, altered for fashion or size as the need arose; however, the gentry would have also used village tailors and dress-shops to purchase the latest season’s dress or hat. Some records from village shops and independent retailers still survive in local archives.

A family portrait by William Hogarth
A family portrait by William Hogarth

The 17th and 18th centuries saw Britain try to expand its territories overseas, and engage in warfare – often prolonged. There were two Anglo-Dutch wars in the mid-17th century, the second one seeing the Dutch surrendering New York to the English. In 1688, the Nine Years’ War began, primarily between France and the Grand Alliance of other European nations, but also involving a campaign between French and English settlers in colonial America.

Colonialism in Britain had really started with the establishment of colonies in north America in the 16th century. In the early 17th century, trading posts were established in the East Indies – India and Bangladesh – and by the middle of the century, the Caribbean, notably Barbados, had seen an influx of Englishmen settle.

As the world got smaller, British people got to know about exotic overseas habits of consumption, and followed suit. Sugar was brought over from the Caribbean; chocolate from South America; and coffee from the Muslim world via other parts of Europe. Coffee and chocolate houses were established in Britain in the mid 18th century – two of the first being in Oxford and London, both in 1752.

Portrait of Thomas Coram by William HogarthThomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, London
Portrait of Thomas Coram by William Hogarth and Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, London
Dr Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
Dr Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

The coffee house was a place where Georgian gentlemen could gather to drink, but also, and more importantly, to socialise or gossip, and to read the newspapers that proprietors provided. Samuel Johnson was a keen coffee house patron, and saw the socialising as being the main part of the house’s attraction. The establishment was suspicious of the coffee houses, seeing those who frequented them as subversive or even republican; men who engaged in political debate in mysterious environs. The Age of Reason was a name given to this period of time, due to the intellectuals such as Isaac Newton who sought to encourage intelligent debate and to solve the world’s problems through discussion. The coffee house was one of the centres for the Enlightenment, where intellectuals could take part in debates, constructive arguments and research.

But the coffee house was also a place to let off steam when not at work, just as the public house was to the working man. People were looking for entertainment during this time, which came in various forms. Traditional fairs were still held, but were seen as being a working-class activity, along with animal baiting, chess and dominoes. The wealthy would visit spas, such as at Tunbridge Wells or Bath, and “take the waters”. They would visit the new seaside resorts, such as those at Blackpool or Scarborough, and use bathing machines – carriages – to descend into the sea, if they were brave enough.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

They might go to assemblies and dance – such as Jane Austen did and described in her novels – visit the theatre, where satirical plays, farces, or more serious fare would be performed, or read novels and satires. Jonathan Swift published his satire on human behaviour, Gulliver’s Travels, in 1726; Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) followed suit. These were groundbreaking works in focusing more on ordinary people rather than the upper classes, and also in employing satire or humour.

One other social occasion needs a mention here. People from all walks of life would attend public executions as a means of entertainment. Present would be hawkers selling drinks, food, broadside ballads or pamphlets claiming to be the penitent autobiographies of the condemned. Londoners could follow the condemned from Newgate in the city to Tyburn in the west; those in the regions could also make large journeys to watch executions, such as those in the Cotswolds in the 18th century, who walked to Gloucester to see executions at Gloucester Gaol.

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Most people’s only day off, though, would have been Sunday; and even then, there were jobs that needed doing. But many families would have spent at least Sunday morning in church, and perhaps returning for an evening service too. Yet the 18th century saw a rise in non-conformism. John Wesley, the preacher who founded Methodism, spend much of the 18th century travelling round England to evangelise. He used religion to argue for social reform, particularly in terms of prison reform. The Baptist church was established in England by the early 17th century; by the mid-18th century, the church had a significant presence in Bath, for example, with members initially meeting in private houses, before building their own meeting house in the 1760s.

An 18th century domestic scene by William Hogarth
An 18th century domestic scene by William Hogarth

Over this period of time, there was an increasing awareness of health risks, and what to do about them. The Fire of London in 1666 made people aware of dangers of London’s jutting wooden buildings, and saw a move towards building even modest homes from stone instead.

There was also a greater awareness of health as result of plagues and outbreaks of cholera, influenza, and so on. Scientists and medical men worked on causes and solutions, although the medicines and remedies that were suggested often did more harm than good. Mathematicians, architects and scientists developed new ways of thinking that made England and Wales a home of scientific advancement and discovery.

People were willing to protest against government measures that they disagreed with, or that might negatively affect them, so saw the Gordon Riots; rioting over introduction of turnpikes and tolls; and riots by Spitalfields silk weavers, to name just a few protests. There was an increasing awareness of social ills, and some philanthropists and politicians attempted to do something about social problems. The Foundling Hospital, for example, was established in 1739, to take in the children of the impoverished.

Coalbrookdale by Night
Coalbrookdale by Night, Philip James de Loutherbourg

Social problems were also highlighted by artists such as William Hogarth, who showed the reliance on alcohol to cope with life’s hardships, and mocked the immorality of sections of society.

There was no gender equality in the 17th and 18th centuries, though. Men were expected to sow their oats before marriage; women not so, although sex before marriage was tolerated in many parishes. It was expected that couples wouldn’t marry until they had been working a while and could afford to maintain a house. Women could continue working after marriage even if only as laundresses or weavers from home – they were expected to contribute towards the household expenses unless they were affluent, in which case women would still help take responsibility for household accounting and management.

A woman’s life after marriage could be precarious. Many women died during childbirth or afterwards from complications such as septicaemia. Medical care cost money, so the poorer members of society would be reliant on neighbourhood women to act as midwives. They might not have any formal training, and there were risks attached to these women, although some had a well-deserved reputation for being wise and caring.

With difficult births, one option might be to cut the foetus up inside the uterus and pull it out, dead. Operations were carried out without any anaesthetic (apart from alcohol). Although some could be unexpectedly successful – limb amputations could be quite efficiently carried out, for example – others could lead to excessive blood loss, or shock, and death. Samuel Pepys was lucky in having a successful operation, at the age of 25 in 1658, to remove kidney stones; but part of his success might simply have been that he was operated on early in the day, when implements were still clean.

Men could go to university, but women were not admitted. has alumni lists for both Oxford and Cambridge for the 17th and 18th centuries; the Oxford list shows the parentage of students, and although many are the sons of gentlemen or clergy, others are marked as sons of “plebs”, such as Leonard Backhouse, son of Richard Backhouse, who came to Brasenose College, Oxford, from Buckinghamshire in 1720, at the age of 17, and graduated four years later.

Samuel Johnson went to Oxford, but had to leave before graduating due to poverty. He was known for wandering around the university in threadbare shoes, his toes visible; but his pride meant that when one well-meaning student left him a new pair of shoes outside his door, he threw them away in indignation. He may have been an unusual case; for, on the whole, this period saw ordinary people seek to own more, to consume more, and to establish themselves within the material culture of their nation. They wanted to improve themselves and their country, and Britain moved forward through the age of Enlightenment and scientific discovery towards the industrial revolution, which started at the end of the 18th century, creating the modern society that we live in today.

Timeline: 17th & 18th Centuries

The Royal Society established in London as a place of scientific research.
The Poor Relief Act is passed, setting out where a person could seek financial assistance.
The Bank of England is founded, introducing paper money.
The Act of Union turned England and Wales, together with the previously separate Scotland, into Great Britain.
The South Sea Bubble – people are encouraged to invest in government debt, but it results in the first financial crash.
The Stage Licensing Act censors satirical plays.
Samuel Johnson publishes his English dictionary, after nine years of work.
James Hargreaves invents the spinning jenny, followed four years later by Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame.
Scotsman Andrew Meikle invents a threshing machine, heralding the agricultural revolution.
Scotsman Andrew Meikle invents a threshing machine, heralding the agricultural revolution.

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